Hands on With Versu: First Impressions After My First Hour With Linden Lab's Latest Storytelling App
Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
This morning Linden Lab launched Versu, an interactive storytelling app for the iPad (other platforms are in the works) with a relatively respectable pedigree behind it. Hamlet posted an overview of Versu as well as its launch trailer earlier today, so I wanted to talk about what it's like to actually use this app, and what I think of it beyond the trailers and the PR (a bit like what I did with dio almost exactly 2 weeks ago.)
Roll up your sleeves because this might get messy.
I should be clear right off the bat that I'm a fan of interactive fiction, so I'm not going to automatically dislike anything that LL does that doesn't look explicitly and traditionally "game-like". I appreciate interactive storytelling and visual novels (I've even made some, and played with various VN creation tools myself), and people like Christine Love are on my list of personal idols. When I hear Emily Short's name, I associate it fondly with a few pieces of ergodic writing that I studied in school as much as with some of her work on casual gaming review site Jay is Games. Launching Versu on Valentine's day might even be a purposeful nod to the app's launch titles, written by Short, a couple of which deal with 19th century courtship.
And yet I can't say that it's been love at first sight between me and Linden Lab's latest app, and I'll get into why shortly.
Here's what you need to know about Versu:
Imagine you were reading a book on Kindle or iBooks or your tablet reader of choice, and when you started that book you got to choose the particular character that you wanted to follow. You could be Pip or Stella or even Miss Havisham, and the story you see would change based on that choice. You can also choose how to act or react to situations, and the story changes accordingly. Most of the currently available stories seem to have different possible endings, so the choices you make can potentially influence the outcome.
So far, this is pretty standard visual novel and interactive fiction stuff, right? These choices come up at forced intervals, but beyond that there are also lots of occasions where you can choose to act spontaneously or to remain inactive, and that feature is what really caught my eye while I played. You might want you character to express something in the middle of another character's monologue, for example, rather than waiting for the action prompt at the end, and that's something I definitely haven't seen too often. And yes, I find that totally enjoyable.
Versu offers four interactive stories currently, as well as a store that will presumably offer new stories as they become available.
Here's what I love about it:
As I mentioned, I enjoy Emily Short's writing. This could be an Emily Short app and I would get it and love it and be entirely happy with nothing more.
The ability to act/react at points of my choosing is also very appealing to me. Choice is a very popular feature in games right now, but the choice to choose takes that idea one step further. It contributes to a much stronger sense of agency, which is the whole point of interactive fiction, right?
This would be an amazing tool to use with kids and teens, as a teacher or a parent. It's the sort of tool I would personally look for any excuse to work into a lesson or activity because it has a lot of potential to engage users with the content. It would be even better if you could create with it.
Here's what disappointed me:
You can't create with it. Yet, anyway. And honestly there's no excuse for that as far as I'm concerned. Linden Lab's other interactive storytelling platform, dio, was released about two weeks ago. It may as well have been released yesterday. There's no obvious reason to rush Versu out the door so soon after dio, and at the very least they should have taken the time to put the creation tools in instead of launching prematurely.
That's why this release feels bizarre to me, and what makes it unfair to both products. It seems like neither is really getting the attention they would need to actually flourish on their own -- because these sorts of things don't flourish without that kind of careful grooming and nurturing, even after they're released. There's a reason that things like this usually come from passionate little indie groups. To be entirely honest, LL hasn't done the best job tending any of their quirky newer releases in the ways needed to develop them into anything substantial. You can't just throw things like dio and Versu at the wall and hope they'll stick, you need to support them there until they do.
Given how much dio and Versu's core features seem to overlap and how close their releases are, it's also odd to me that they currently lack any sort of interconnectivity (or that potential interconnectivity doesn't appear to be on the table yet.) Why not just bring the option to use character-based storytelling into dio (and object-based interactability into Versu, for that matter) and give Versu the functionality of a dio reader/editor for iPad? Or why not let people create their stories in dio (because the idea of typing out a novella on an iPad keyboard sounds like an absolute nightmare), sell them in Versu, and kill two birds with one stone? Linden Lab did mention the eventual monetization of dio rooms, so could this be what they were hinting at? Maybe. Versu already requires an internet connection to access and play the stories (and I had to deal with a lot of weird connection errors while I was testing it out this morning), just like dio's rooms, so it's not too much of a stretch.
If Versu worked with dio and dio worked with Versu, both products would definitely be stronger for it.
Here's what I'm getting at:
I'm honestly not sure what the future holds for Versu; although it may not sound like it, I am absolutely hoping for the best. Independent of the circumstances of its release, it's a perfectly decent app. Like dio, it's an interesting platform with a lot of potential, and if you're interested in interactive storytelling you should absolutely check it out. It's free, it's fun, and with a little luck (and a little work) it will grow into something truly exceptional.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.